Vlatko Andonovski told Julie Ertz she'd need to “prove herself” to make the U.S. roster for this summer's Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. She took a huge stride toward that Sunday evening, providing Angel City FC added dimension in her return to the National Women's Soccer League.
And she had a blast doing so.
Ertz, signed last week following her stunning, unexpected return to the U.S. national team earlier this month, gave a terrific, perhaps even transformative performance in a 2-0 loss to archrival San Diego Wave FC in front of 22,000 at BMO Stadium, offering a glimpse of what's possible for the celebrated second-year club.
The 31-year-old midfielder, who played into the 72nd minute, was energetic and sharp in her customary holding role, more so as she familiarized herself with teammates she'd trained alongside just twice, and her presence both calmed and ignited her new team to its best performance this season. She was pivotal in Angel City's ability to possess and create higher up the field, anchored its solid defensive effort, and provided set-piece possibilities that certainly concerned the opposition.
It was only the start.
“That was a big change [having Ertz with us],” captain Ali Riley proclaimed afterward. “We're able to play a different style because we have her there. ... We were able to win the ball back higher up the field. We had players playing the roles that they should be in, like Sav[annah] McCaskill being closer to the goal, having Alyssa [Thompson] and Claire [Emslie] being able to go 1v1 on the wing.
“We have players more comfortable in their positions, and a lot of that is because we have the presence of Julie now, allowing players to be more attacking. ... I think we played a style of football that we've been aiming for.”
If Ertz wasn't quite vintage -- this was her first start since the Tokyo Olympics bronze-medal game 20½ months earlier -- she was far closer to it than anyone had a right to expect. And she found immediate joy in front of the not-uncustomary sellout crowd.
“I'm so grateful to be here ...,” said Ertz, who did not play last year while pregnant with her and Arizona Cardinals tight end Zach Ertz's child, born in August. “I think the first word is 'absolutely unbelievable.' That's the first word that comes to my mind. It was a dream. I think our hope of where NWSL could be and to be a part of a team that has really built that and just the amount of people [who] when I walked by said, 'Welcome home,' is a really fun embrace, to create this type of culture that is fans and players that have a fun interaction of just pure joy for the game. So I couldn't have enjoyed the atmosphere any more. ...
“And the team, like, I'm having so much fun playing with them. Obviously, today is not the scoreline that we want, but [it's good] to be able to put a performance together and having something that we can grow off of. Obviously, hate losing so much. So it sounds weird, but I did have so much fun tonight.”
Angel City acquired Ertz's rights from the Chicago Red Stars, with whom she'd played since 2014, before last season's expansion draft and became a free agent during the offseason under the NWSL's new collective-bargaining agreement. L.A. was a natural destination, given its proximity to Phoenix, and she praised the club in the announcement of the deal for being “unwavering in their support of my journey” from “the moment they traded for my rights up until now.”
She arrived in SoCal on Wednesday, took in another 2-0 loss -- in a Challenge Cup opener against OL Reign -- and got in one full and one half-training session ahead of her debut.
“I think in the beginning, I wasn't getting on the ball as much, wasn't as clean as I wanted to be,” Ertz said. “But I think it's just getting used to playing with the team and kind of reading the game and getting back into it. ... The whole building in [was about learning] people's tendencies and all that and to build chemistry. I felt as the game got on and I was able to kind of read it and understand my role, I got more comfortable, as well.”
Ertz last played in an NWSL game in May 2021, when she suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament ahead of the Tokyo Games. There was no word on her intentions after she had her son, Madden, and Andonovski in February said that since she wasn't playing with a club, “she’s someone that we’re probably not gonna be able to count on in the World Cup.”
She let him know otherwise, came into camp, fared well in two shutout wins off the bench against Ireland, and now has taken care of the club matter. It's not been an easy path.
“Having a son has been one of my biggest joys in my entire world,” Ertz said, “but being able to share this time with him while I'm training [is wonderful]. And it's really special because, you know, as a mom, I'm navigating that life as well and connecting to a piece of me that I've had before him. Being able to mutually share it is a really special space.
“I really couldn't do it without my husband and his support, just because it is tough now, kind of doing distance and figuring out how to [make it] work for our family, but being able to still do something that you love with the love of having your family as well has been interesting. But I think it's also been a really cool bonding experience with my husband but also with our son.”
She's a relentless ball-winner and competitor -- “top 1 percent of all of women’s soccer,” longtime national team press officer Aaron Heifetz puts it -- a superb organizer, an underrated playmaker, and plays with uncommon intensity, qualities the national team has not been able to replace in her absence, and qualities that can transform Angel City (1-2-1 in league play), which has lacked bite in midfield, conceded twice in four of its first five games, and struggled to create the required opportunities.
“It will take time to get to know each other,” Riley said. “I think we can have her sitting a little bit higher, depending on how many 6s [foes use], how many 8s they play with, or [a] 10. I just think that her physical presence, cleaning up any balls that drop, second balls ... she knows the game so well. I would love to get her to play some of those switches, because that's something I think we want to switch the point of attack more, get some of our wingers on the ball. We're able to do that, I think. It's just a confidence [that she brings to the team].”
Head coach Freya Coombe noted Ertz's “really good presence on the ball.”
“I felt like she looked calm under pressure a lot, which I think translated to the rest of the team,” Coombe said. “I felt like they were a lot calmer on the ball as a result. Even when pressed, I think that she was able to deal with pressure really well and just play out of it calmly. And I think having her leadership in the center, to direct, is huge for us.”
Ertz provides a foundation for McCaskill, Angel City's primary creator and her former Red Stars teammate, to do what she does best.
“Sav's busy, and I say that in the best way,” Ertz said. “She's all over the place, and I love her energy. She just wants to win, and it's fun to play with a player like that. And her tenacity around the goal. I'm excited to build upon that.”
So is Riley.
“Sav has been coming so low to try to get on the ball -- she is very busy,” the veteran fullback said. “I want all of that energy closer to the opposition goal, and I think she was able to do that tonight. I think a lot of us ran less because we were able to win the ball higher up because [Ertz] gives us confidence to do that.
“And this is off the back of one training with us, just meeting the team, just coming in, having one day to learn our set pieces or how we press, how we press on a goal kick, all of these different pieces that we've been working on for a few months now. She was able to take in that information and put that type of performance out there -- and she was disappointed with how she started the game. So I was like, oh my gosh, I can't wait to see what's what we're going to build into. I do think that it is a piece of the puzzle that is going to be so important to us moving forward.”
The Wave (3-1-0) got late goals off the bench from Sofia Jakobsson and Makenzy Doniak, and head coach Casey Stoney acknowledged that “Angel City were very unlucky tonight. ... I think we used our luck for the season.” She was impressed by Ertz.
“She controls the game, doesn't she?” Stoney said. “When you've got the ball and you've got someone like that, even when we tried to get high pressure on her, she just stays so calm, she can solve pressure so well, she's a massive threat from set pieces -- that's something we needed to really take care of.
“Yeah, she's going to be, obviously, a big asset for them in the short-term.”
Long-term? We'll see. Ertz's contract lasts a season, but she's delighted by her experience so far.
“This team is special,” she said. “[I knew it] from the second I came in. This is a winning culture. This team wants to win, every game trying to figure out what it is that we need to continue to grow. And it's obviously early in the season, which is great, but it's now holding each other accountable, individually and collectively. ... The next piece is just getting that camaraderie together and really putting a full 90 minutes together.”
Photos: Angel City FC